Did you watch the epic TV mini-series The Bible during December?
If you did you will have been reminded of just how much violence the Old Testament records. For the average non-Christian viewer it may reinforce their suspicion that the God of the Old Testament is a God of anger and malevolence, unsuited to our modern morals.
What can we say in response?
It is important to maintain that God is a judge who has the right to dispense judgement. He is the creator, and we are the creation. His judgements are fair and wise by definition. Whether the flood at the time of Noah or the day of judgement when Christ returns, history displays the justice and sovereignty of God.
But many of the so-called ‘terror texts’ still need some explanation. Why did God command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite towns? Do the laws of the Old Testament seem harsh in our modern world?
We do not read the Bible without giving proper attention to context and genre. Many of the most violent passages in Scripture are descriptive rather than prescriptive — they describe what went on rather than prescribe how we should behave. The book of Judges is particularly representative of this. It is hard to find a good moral example in its pages. But the book itself tells us that: ‘In those days Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judges 21.25).
In the book of Joshua we read of God’s judgement on the entire Canaanite population through the Israelites. This can be harder to interpret. It is a divine decree. It reflects God’s judgement on a wicked people when their sin had reached ‘full measure’ (Genesis 15.16). However, we may still be perplexed at the judgement falling upon children and animals.
Creating a space
It helps to pause and read these stories a little more closely. The description of total destruction is normal ancient near-eastern warfare language. In practice, Israel did not totally destroy the Canaanites. Many lived on in the land and Jerusalem would remain in the hands of the Jebusites until the time of King David. Also, the destruction brought about by the Israelites fell upon the cities, essentially fortress strongholds. Many people would have lived and worked on the land and fled long before. A city like Jericho would have been more like a castle standing against the Israelites. It was a military target.
But we still question why God brought about destruction of all its inhabitants. The theological answer is that God cared about the purity of his people in their new land. As they settled in the land they were tempted by the local religious practices, like child sacrifice and prostitution. In order to create a space for any hope of a dedicated people of Israel, God had to destroy what was there. This is not ethnic cleansing. Some of these ethnic groups joined the Israelites (like Rahab and her family). The Israelites also formed alliances with other ethnic groups. It is a religious cleansing. Some things matter so much that they cannot be contaminated by false ideas.
World War II
Before modern critics dismiss this period of ancient Israel’s history, let us remember events in the modern age. In 1945 the decision was taken to drop atomic weapons on Japan. 200,000 people died as a direct result – men, women and children along with all the animals. This destruction dwarfs anything that happened in ancient Israel. Was this justified? Christians will disagree but certainly those who have argued in its favour were moral people. The leaders and soldiers are not considered wicked as they weighed up the reasons for carrying out these bombings. Even if we disagree with those decisions, we recognise that they were moral people with a justification for their actions.
How much more should we assume that God, the source of moral goodness, had reason for the more limited devastation of the Joshua conquests? And, as we look to the future, we know that God will yet bring the whole world into judgement. Not only is God able to take such decisions but he knows the thoughts of every heart and acts accordingly. Far from being an immoral book, the Old Testament provides a moral framework that enables us to know what is right and wrong, to condemn ethnic cleansing and to trust in God’s final judgement (1 Corinthians 4.5).
Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057